"The Freedom of the City" may be Theatre West's most ambitious project ever. It certainly is its most ambitious in memory.
This massive undertaking is staged with a cast of thousands (really 35, give or take a mewling baby). It has a military presence (augmented in this production by director Fionnula Flanagan), an eerie pageantry, a grim sense of context--and a tendency to sag under its own weight.
The sociopolitical Brian Friel play is loosely based on the so-called Bloody Sunday massacre of Feb. 10, 1970, in Londonderry--an event that won't necessarily stand out in the American consciousness. Not only are we inured to daily reports of senseless violence everywhere, but it's hard to go back 18 years and thousands of miles across the sea to remember a single incident in a country that suffers so chronically from civil unrest.
The particular incident is really not the point. It's a quasi-generic point of departure from which Friel lets his imagination take off. "Freedom of the City" is about man's inhumanity to man. It speaks to that broader issue in the soft brogue of the beleaguered Irish at the barricades of everyday life. And it speaks in engaging, surprisingly humorous, even bantering tones, when it isn't speaking in its much less effective heroic ones.
The problem lies in this very contradiction of structure. Friel has written parallel plays here: a small three-character one that takes place within the confines of the Londonderry guild hall, where three relatively innocent bystanders have taken refuge from the riot--and the shooting and shouting that constitute its amorphous but relentless outer casing.
In the shelter of the mayor's well-appointed inner office, we meet upright and up-tight Michael (Charles Dougherty); Lily (Pat Crawford Brown), an aging, earthy mother of 11, and the enigmatic Skinner (Bob McCracken), a shifty, shadowy fellow with no permanent address.
They're accidental roommates, thrown together by the British gassing of the Irish rioters (though this is not terribly clear in this production, where voices tend to drown each other out in the mass confusion). Skinner excepted, they seem trapped by the event rather than participating in it.
Lulled by the comfort of this room (the evocative set is by Don Day), they relax and get acquainted while the din rages on. It's not long before we surmise that these three will be the sacrificial lambs of the madness on the fringes.
This inner part of the play works well. It has levity and humanity. Lily is a pip. She regales the guys with family stories, invites the hapless Skinner to drop in for a meal whenever he's hungry, doesn't mind taking a nip of the Mayor's sherry, thank you (it's offered by Skinner, who has no qualms pouring it). Crawford Brown richly fleshes out the portrait. She's raucous, warm, funny.
The men are less persuasive. Dougherty, meek and nervous enough to convince us of his discomfort, never quite wins us over. McCracken, a normally fine actor, seems daunted by the very range of Skinner's possibilities. His is the showiest role, but at Sunday's performance, he was still just exploring its surface.
And there are other problems. Dialect is a big one. In the peripheral roles, it remains stubbornly uneven. Tom Dahlgren as a pontificating judge sounds Southern, not Irish. Many of the soldiers (who sometimes frisk and search members of the audience) often simply sound American.
The prologue tacked on by Flanagan (it's the text of a political speech given by Bernadette Devlin in New York in 1982) is difficult to follow, partly because Anne Leyden-Howard, who delivers it, has to top crowd noises and the distractions of an audience straggling into the theater.
But Flanagan's concept for the whole is impressive. She has created chilling environmental theater, with stone-faced soldiers posted at the doors and in the aisles and an atmosphere, if not a smell, of death lingering in the murky half-light (designed by Lawrence Oberman), with its candlelight processions and impressionistic executions.
Ultimately, though, the labor of love is stymied by its own mass. The actors in the more impersonal outer play aren't quite able to carry its weight. Friel has to assume part of that responsibility, but the sense persists that the performers haven't had enough time with the material or the idea to fully marry either. They are still playing at, rather than inhabiting, their roles.
Time may sort these things out. Meanwhile, this is a "City" under siege--not by the English, but by actors who must organically embrace what are for now only their intellectual convictions.
'THE FREEDOM OF THE CITY' A play by Brian Friel presented by Theatre West. Producers Mary Lou Belli, Catherine MacNeal. Director Fionnula Flanagan. Set design Don Day. Costumes Wendy Guidery. Lighting design Lawrence Oberman. Sound design Michael Dobson. Dialects David Alan Stern. Stage Manager Diane Witter. Cast Pat Crawford Brown, Charles Dougherty, Bob McCracken, Anne Leyden-Howard, Alexandra Carlyle, Leslie Caveny, MG Macormic, Tom Dahlgren, Ivy Bethune, Andrew Taylor, Tina Celentano, Alexis Tahiri, Terrence Evans, Martha Gallub, Andrea Iaderosa, Constance Sawyer, George McWilliams, Donald Moore, Matthew O'Connor, Ernest Harden Jr., Jeff Bell, Randy Vasquez, Thomas Stovak, Blane Wheatley, Kenneth McCabe, Vivien Straus, Timothy Noyes, Tom Corvel, Charles Tichenor, Andrew Walker, David Blackwood, Maria Hayden, Nadine Kalmes, Joe Lucas, Laura Mellencamp. Performances at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West run Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., with a matinee Feb. 21 at 3. Ends Feb. 28. Tickets: $12.50; (213) 465-0070).